Storm Force 10: The Fastnet Disaster

The Fastnet Race is one of amateur yachting’s greatest challenges. Always daring. Always demanding. Always dangerous. Yet nothing prepared crews and rescuers for the historic storm of 13 August 1979.
St Marys lifeboat during Fastnet rescue

‘And now the Shipping Forecast...’ 

1.55pm: ‘Sole, Lundy, Fastnet – south-westerly 4 to 6, increasing 6 or 7 for a time, veering westerly later. Occasional rain or showers. Moderate, locally poor, becoming good later.’ 

The morning of 13 August dawned fair with smooth seas. Even the Shipping Forecast gave little indication of what was to come. Peter Whipp, skipper of Magic, recalls: ‘There was no wind, no forecast of anything significant, and it was a warm, humid afternoon.’

But he recollects feeling uneasy: ‘It was kind of eerie,’ he says, ‘and I remember charging up all the batteries and lashing everything down.’ 

Peter’s premonition was to unfold into yachting’s deadliest tragedy and one of the largest ever rescue operations in peacetime. 

Unknown to the fleet of 303 yachts hurtling furiously toward Fastnet Rock, a mesoscale surface jet of hurricane speed was racing to meet them.

Data from the storm of 1979 reveals that an extraordinary event occurred. As the weather system ‘low Y’ passed over the Western Approaches, a column of cold air crashed down from the stratosphere, splitting it into many smaller systems and turbocharging the wind. 

Radio silence 

4.05pm: ‘Sole, Fastnet, Shannon – south-westerly gale force 8 imminent.’ 

Few competitors were listening to BBC Radio 4 at 4pm when the first gale warning was broadcast and only 8% reported becoming aware of the severity of the storm between 2pm and 4pm. 

Unlike today, there was no GPS, no terrestrial navigation, and many of the vessels spread over the 605 miles of open sea between Plymouth and Fastnet had no radio communications onboard. And 40 years ago, it was not general practice for those at sea to keep a continuous listening watch on Radio 4. 

Philip Crebbin, a crew member aboard Eclipse, points out another factor that was problematic in 1979: ‘Even in heavy conditions at night, it was not automatic for everybody on deck to wear lifejackets and harnesses in those days – that became a requirement as a result of this race.’ 

This combination of factors – a freak storm, inadequate communications, and lack of safety measures that are standard in yacht racing today – was to prove fatal, as many crews were unprepared for the turmoil about to hit them and were too far out to sea to turn back.

The furthest point in the race, the iconic Fastnet Rock

Photo: Shutterstock

The furthest point in the race, the iconic Fastnet Rock

Hell and high water 

6.30pm: ‘Finisterre, Sole, Fastnet – south-westerly gale force 8, increasing severe gale force 9 imminent.’ 

Although offshore racing yachts can be sailed through force 8 gales (in open waters away from areas of fast tidal streams), gale warnings are important to allow adequate precautions to be taken. 

The 6.30pm shipping forecast was the first to indicate that anything more than gale force 8 was expected. The first warning of storm force 10 conditions didn’t come until the 11pm broadcast – too late for the majority of competitors to seek shelter. Any who tried, would’ve risked hazarding their yachts by approaching the coast in a rising storm. 

At midnight on Tuesday 14 August, the low was close to Valentia Island in south west Ireland, with a minimum central pressure of around 979hPa making it one of the most intense lows on record.

The wind rapidly shifted by more than 90º, causing mountainous waves – some as high as 25m – to cross in an unpredictable pattern. Worse still, they were breaking at the top and dropping vast quantities of water onto boats caught in the troughs below. 

John Rousmaniere of Toscana and author of Fastnet, Force 10 remembers: ‘Our navigator, John Coote, stuck his head up the companionway, paused for a few moments, and mournfully intoned words that I had never expected to hear when I first went to sea: “Men are dying out here.”’ 

Surmising the tragedy in his Yachting World article published later that year, Alan Watts wrote: ‘This time the boats did not have a chance. No amount of seamanship would have prevented many of those which rolled, or were knocked down repeatedly, from succumbing to their fate. The cruel sea saw to that.’ 

Only 86 of over 300 starting boats finished. There were 194 retirements and 25 yachts were sunk or otherwise disabled and abandoned, with 75 turned upside down in the crashing waves. Five boats were ‘lost, believed sunk’ and 15 sailors drowned. Reserve lifeboat Crew Member and skipper of the yacht Cavale Peter Dorey, from St Peter Port, was one of those who died.

Rescuers braving the storm 

11pm: ‘Fastnet – south-westerly severe gales force 9, increasing storm force 10 imminent.’ 

Courage was by no means limited to the sailors. Thirteen RNLI lifeboats went out into that storm, served nearly 170 hours, and towed or escorted 18 yachts with more than 100 people back to safe haven. 

At the height of the storm Baltimore lifeboat was at sea for about 24 hours, Courtmacsherry lifeboat for around 22 hours and St Mary’s lifeboat for nearly 21 hours. Ballycotton, Dunmore East, Lizard-Cadgwith, Padstow, St Ives, Sennen Cove, Angle, Clovelly and Penlee lifeboats also took part. Falmouth’s crew were away from their station for 38 hours with only brief visits to St Mary’s and Newlyn. 

‘I’d been out earlier,’ says Diarmuid O’Mahony, retired coxswain of Courtmacsherry lifeboat. ‘I was just in bed 10 minutes when we got the shout at 2am. It took us 4 hours to reach the area. The seas were so high it was almost impossible to see anything.’ 

While the winds were gusting at hurricane speed, the massive rescue operation was mounted, coordinated by the Irish Coast Guard and the UK Coastguard. 4,000 people were involved in a collaborative effort including British, Irish and Dutch personnel, naval vessels and aircraft. The Royal Navy, RAF and RNLI led the way, charging into perilous conditions. 

It is certain that, without the selfless determination of these courageous rescuers, the death toll would have been even higher. Sadly, three of the brave rescuers also lost their lives. 

Roger Vaughan of the Kialoa notes the depth of the trauma this way: ‘Most competitive sailors in the UK had a mate – or at least the mate of a friend – who was injured, traumatised or lost during that violent night.’

A welcome sight for the yachtsman – Courtmacsherry lifeboat

Photo: Ambrose Greenway

A welcome sight for the yachtsman – Courtmacsherry lifeboat

Hard lessons 

12.15am: ‘Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea – south to south-west veering westerly 7 to severe gale 9, locally storm 10 in Fastnet.’ 

The 1979 Fastnet race had consequences that are still felt today, and not just for the race itself. The Royal Yachting Association (RYA) and Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) jointly commissioned an inquiry to thoroughly investigate the safety and performance of small craft, their crews and equipment. This far-reaching report on standards for offshore sailing led to significant changes and improvements to yacht design, safety and equipment. 

Today, crews have to pre-qualify to take part in ocean races. Participating boats must have VHF radios, safety harnesses now bear a 200kg load, yachts have been re-engineered to give more stability, and crews are advised not to abandon their boat until sinking is inevitable. 

Huge advances in technology – from GPS to personal locator beacons (PLBs) – have also made an enormous difference to sailors’ safety. ‘The greatest innovation,’ says Diarmuid O’Mahony, ‘is the personal locator. Some even come clipped to lifejackets.’ 

2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the Fastnet disaster. For those who battled bravely against the elements that night, for those waiting at home for word from their loved ones, and for those involved in this historic rescue, it remains a painful memory. One that must not and will not be forgotten. 

Rousmaniere puts it this way: ‘Talking leads inevitably to stories, stories attract people’s attention, and so, as long as there are veterans of that wild August night telling those stories, lessons will be learned.’

Never forgotten

St Mary’s Coxswain Pete Hicks

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

St Mary’s Coxswain Pete Hicks

Some lifeboat volunteers recall the disaster and are still on high alert during each Fastnet race. ‘Fastnet is etched in your psyche,’ says St Mary’s Coxswain Pete Hicks. ‘I was at primary school when it happened and I remember the crews were out for hours and hours. But that race changed yacht racing – made it safer.’

Our volunteer crew are the backbone of the lifeboat service. They are available 24/7, whatever the weather, to rescue those who need help.

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